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Jonathan Fenby’s New China Book Fails to Impress

**[Jonathan Fenby](http://authors.simonandschuster.co.uk/Jonathan-Fenby/31443026)’s new book, which he calls a “one-stop account” of China today, has come out just in time to cash in on China’s 2012 leadership transition. At least, that’s what he must be hoping, because like other “one-stop” shopping solutions (Wal-Mart? Carrefour?) the book leaves you dazed, hollow, unsatisfied and saddled with a basketful of things of marginal use to lug home.** ----- Fenby used to be a reporter editor in Hong Kong for the [South China Morning Post](http://www.scmp.com) before registering righteous indignation at the paper’s pandering to the Chinese mainland post hand-over and subsequently being let go. Now he runs an emerging markets consultancy research group. He’s written China books before which gamely steer clear of esoteric academicism in favor of expat-on-the-street pragmatism. Unfortunately, beneath the traffic in hard facts, there is all too much lecturing going on, also typical of expat-on-the-street pragmatism. “A senior official, Dai Bingguo, has defined [China’s] target as being to ‘preserve its fundamental system and state security.’ That is hardly a target befitting of a true superpower,” he writes. Later: “The appeal of such an approach is evident, but it is not the agenda for a great power.”

##Fun Facts, But Are They True?## Fenby’s out to take some air out of the rising superpower by cataloguing the many snake tails hiding beneath the tiger head. Fortunately he marshals an impressive mix of anecdotal facts and stats which form the bulk of the book. Open at random and you’ll find at least one interesting tidbit to impress your drinking buddies: China’s budget for internal security now exceeds that of the armed forces, bolstered by a network of 39 million informers; A fire once broke out in a hospital in Shanghai and everyone fled, leaving a patient to die on the operating table; secondary schools in Beijing now charge entrance fees of up to ¥87,000; in 2010 residents of Wuxi bought a combined 7.3 tons of gold; 30 percent of young Chinese people are suffering from depression and behavioral problems. Facts like these sound like they could be true, but are never queried. Few are even attributed. The ones that are attributed all seem to come from the Financial Times, South China Morning Post, Global Times or the author’s personal communications. Precious few Chinese sources are mentioned. It’s ironic, given that his consultancy is called “Trusted Resources.” "Trusted Sources"

##A Consistent Focus Is Lacking## Furthermore, the facts are mustered in a sustained volley which lacks narrative progression. The “Nation on Speed” chapter is a good example. It reads like an RSS feed of last month’s blog headlines. Is this the future of China writing? Give us Oliver August and his obsession with smuggler Lai Changxing any day. Fenby breezes past mention of Fujian cigarette counterfeiters operating in heavily fortified underground bunkers at the apex of a whole economy riddling the China coast. How is this not worth a chapter by itself? Fenby’s mix of facts and moralizing add up to a white Confucius peddling scrolls of proposals to China’s leaders. Borrow the book from a friend and read the “Lack of Trust” and “Cracks in the Mirror” chapters, which do credible jobs plotting the scope of China’s environmental degradation, demographic timebomb and endemic corruption. The rest you already know anyway.

Jonathan Fenby, Tiger Head, Snake Tails, [Simon & Schuster](http://www.simonandschuster.co.uk/), $43.65

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Comments

Comments

leemack

Apologies for those mistakes and thanks for pointing them out. I have amended the above to reflect. and you did not protest against SCMP management's pushing the paper to take a more conciliatory stance toward the mainland during your tenure there?

jfenby

I am afraid that this review leaves me totally confused. It manages to get my job at the SCMP wrong, to describe the firm at which I work wrongly and even to get its name wrong. I didn't register " righteous indignation at the paper’s pandering to the Chinese mainland " since it didn't do so when I was there. Why would I query facts if I put them in my book? If they were to be queried I would not use them. Your logic escapes me. As for the cigarette smugglers, if i gave a chapter to every element like the cigarette smugglers the book would have been endless. I am no Confucius and what has the colournof my skin got to do with it> .
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